One of the most frequently asked questions around hobby broadcasters is: “Can you recommend a mixing console for me?”
The simple answer is – “no”.
Well, an unequivocal advice is impossible – simply because the individual demands of each user differ substantially. Some of the basic conditions to be taken account of are (list incomplete):
The mode the mixer is used with mAirList, i.e. live broadcasting, with or without use of external playback devices, or a voicetracking-only setup,
the need of internal sound devices,
the need and number of remote controls,
the number of external devices used,
the number of microphones in use,
the need and number of cleanfeed channels,
decent metering capability,
the need and number of controls (EQ, dynamics, …) per channel,
the need of insertion paths per channel/sum,
the ergonomy of the control surface,
the durability of the console and its controls,
the user’s technical comprehension,
and last but not least
- the budget the user has access to, or how seriously he takes his broadcasting ambitions, respectively.
For getting along with the decision, here are some explanations to the features mentioned above.
Generally, not every kind of a box with faders on is equally suited for broadcasting purposes. (Indeed, there happen to be some “mixers” around which haven’t even faders, but some kind of knobs. I am not talking of these; go out for a nice dinner instead.)
Mainly, there are two types of mixers around: Those for music production and those for broadcasting purposes. So how do you differ between those two? Simply, the latter are rare and difficult to find. More precisely: While production mixers are equipped with a fair number of (mono-) microphone inputs and group faders (a kind of additional bus), broadcasting consoles are sporting many stereo faders (more than mono faders) and, ideally, no master fader. Also, broadcasting consoles are provided with signalisation facilities (i.e. remote control), which production mixers are lacking throughout.
Live broadcasting vs. voicetracking: While broadcasting a live show is, from a technical point of view, a relatively easy task, things differ considerably with voicetracking. Prerecording your voicetracks for scheduled playout is not the point. But if you want to record the tracks within a live show you have to introduce a separate sum (aka “bus”, i.e. “output”), as the on-air feed must not take notice of you recording the tracks. (But anyhow, why should you want to do so? If you are broadcasting live, just make your announcements live, equally.)
If you will play audiofiles only, you will save a lot of extra faders, but will be limited to your audio library – spontaneous dropping-in of a rare track from a CD or else will not happen during your show.
Internal sound devices allow making the hardware setup somewhat easier, as there is simply not the amount of wiring involved. mAirList supports all contemporary standards for Windows sound implementation. (WASAPI-drivers, however, should be preferred.) If the console does not feature an internal soundcard, the acquisition of a multichannel sound device must be taken into account.
Remote controls simplify the life of a broadcast presenter considerably. These can be realized by so-called “hot keys”, one or more push buttons above or below the fader that can be used to start players in mAirlist or externally, for instance. Or, differently, a whole bunch of buttons is placed somewhere on the mixer surface, which can be used to, say, operate the cartwall directly. Some mixers provide remote control directly via USB (make sure that mAirList will understand the protocol), some don’t. In this case you will have to go for an external interface for signalling.
An expanded variety of remote control is the fader start option. This implies a little switch being operated as soon as the fader is moved from its lowest position. It is as easy as fader up → song starts, fader down → song stops. This is so comfortable that you will accustom very quickly to. I as a professional broadcaster refuse to operate a console without fader start anyway. For microphone channels a fader start contact is vital to mute the control room monitors and to switch on on-air-lamps. (For the broadcast beginner: Muting the monitors [i.e. loudspeakers] while having microphone open is essential, as massive feedback will occur otherwise.) Disadvantage: Really common only in professional or, rarely, in semiprofessional mixers.
If you are using external playback devices like CD-players, turntables or else, a number of additional faders, particularily stereo faders, are needed. (The use of two mono faders for a stereo device is not feasible.) However, if you own a greater amount of these, adding one fader for each device will fail, as consoles with that many channels are not available – or will wreck your banking account, respectively. In this case, channels can be carried out switchable between two devices, or you might consider using an external patch panel. And, not to forget, external gear means more wiring.
If you are planning to operate turntables, channels with an integrated RIAA-compatible preamplifier are mandatory, else you will have to employ external units.
Broadcasting with more than one voice at a time will require more microphone channels – one microphone for each person ideally, but at least one separate mic for each announcer. Studio guests may share one microphone, but this demands precise seating and increased attention in levelling. Remember: Plugging multiple sources into one single input is not possible.
Utilizing telephone lines necessitates the implementation of cleanfeed channels, aka “mix-minus” or “n–1” (“enn minus one”). This means feeding the sum signal to the caller, but devoid of the caller himself. Elsewise you will get echo effects all over the place (induced by transmission delays) marring your show. These channels can be hard-wired within the mixer, or be set up via a so-called AUX-sum (auxiliary sum).
Delivering a correctly-levelled audio signal is essential for your listeners not to be annoyed by your show (or its imperfections, respectively). Achieving this requires a well-readable level meter, normally realized by a larger or lesser number of LEDs in a row. However, a higher number of LEDs alone does not make a proper meter. Even more important is its dynamic characteristics: PPM (peak programme meters) are always to be preferred to VU (volume units) instruments! Anyway, a high-quality PPM-unit can (and should) always be set up externally.
The microphone and telco channels should be equipped with EQ controls, for the player channels these are not as important. Dynamics controls should be yielded to an external unit, which can handle this task better. (For low- and mid-priced mixers, that is.)
To connect these external compressors/limiters, channel inserts are needed. Mic- and telco channels suffice to be equipped with.
Ergonomy? Isn’t this a thing only professionals have to deal with? Well, if you are of the brand of “radiomakers” thinking “radio” would consist mainly of a heap of clicky-coloury-blinky-thingy gadgets where kind of sound comes out of somewhere at the end, then feel free to skip this paragraph. (Whatsoever, this whole article is not written for you. Carry on blinking.) However, if you like to produce smooth, flawless shows, you might want to spend some thoughts about this topic.
Producing radio shows, be it as a presenting DJ or “only” as a technician sitting at the console and letting others do the talking, is an utterly demanding task. If you aim at a finished product which doesn’t consist mainly of more or less embarrassing mishaps, the least thing you want is to be distracted by your equipment itself. Your brain is limited, and every little thing that diverts your attention will corrupt the main ingredients of your show: The presentation, its content (yes!), the flow of elements, the timing, and what have you. Thus, the user interface of your equipment must allow being operated sight- and thoughtlessly. This means that every button not really needed is one button too many – since it distracts your attention. Faders placed too close to each other so you have to look at before use – distract your attention. Screens overfilled with tiny gimmicks – you name it.
If you take a look at professional broadcasting studios, you might get the idea of yawningly boring equipment. Well, it is not boring at all, it is just that the professionals know what they want to work with.
So look out for consoles which are not overly filled with gimmicks, but have decent space between the faders (30 mm [1¼"] minimum is advisable), clear lettering, smoothly-moving controls (faders!) and all that. The faders should have at least 100 mm (4") of travel. Master faders are a cheap and common way for the manufacturer to make the console look even thingier, but are superfluous for broadcasting purposes.
Durability: It does make a difference if you are producing radio shows at times or 24/7. It is just that the equipment will give up the ghost sooner or later. Generally, you want to be on the “later”-side. It is not the point losing your mixer at once, but the faders will slightly move stickier, will generate unwanted noise, switches refuse to switch when they should do so, etc. And if this should happen, the whole thing should be able to be repaired easily, even after some years of use. But you won’t get this for free – higher quality will always have to be paid for in money. If you are presenting, say, one hour a week (and may have a different hobby some months after), you might get away with some cheap far-east non-branded mixer, but remember: Buying cheaply means buying twice.
As a broadcasting studio is always a more or less complex setup, you should preferably come around with a least amount of technical comprehension. Out-of-the-box solutions don’t exist, as simply putting an on-air lamp to work means dealing with soldering irons and insulation strippers already – or knowing someone who masters these challenges. If you are not scary about wiring and putting relays and connectors into small housings, okay. If you are, then look out for a mixer with, at least, a built-in USB-sound device and -remote. A used console torn out of a professional radio station will definitely not be your playground. (With inside compliments to the order of Pterosauria.)
Cinch or XLR connectors? This is something you cannot choose from, you will have to take what you get. Professional mixers come with XLR, others most likely have cinch (RCA-) plugs. (Microphone channels are featuring XLR – or at least TRS – connectors anyway.) But keep in mind that one single XLR connector costs 3 to 5 Euro at least. One stereo source will call for four of them.
Professional mixing desks by Studer, DHD, Lawo, etc. do feature all of the above properties. But be aware that the expense for these can climb to high five-digit numbers with ease. This is profitable only for those who are making money with their broadcasting. (And, don’t give a sh*t on the word “professional” typed in flyers or brochures. If it is truly professional, the customers will know anyway. (I apologize to Mr Willi Studer here.))
So what is this elegy all about, considering your (presumably limited) monetary budget? Don’t you have to take what you get for the price you can afford?
Sure you have! These remarks just want to share some light on the different aspects of the technical layout of broadcast mixers. In the end, you, the final user, have to weigh up for yourself the priority of the features against each other. By reading through this article you, ideally, may have got an insight into the considerations to what aspect you want to put more importance on or which count lesser.
My one and only recommendation is to look for a dedicated broadcasting mixer, just because of its signalisation/remote gear.
So you might want to purchase a used console instead of a brand new one? Good idea, this can be a wallet-preserving measure, saving either money on the one hand or receiving a more extensive configuration on the other. If you are able to obtain a mixer from a reliable source, go ahead. But be careful: Acquiring a used console implies always the risk of hidden malfunctions, which can be able to deteriorate the cost advantage considerably. Purchasing spare parts for professional desks often means weighing them up with precious metals.